|His stats dipped the last two years, but Charlie Villanueva is on the upswing. (Darren hauck/Associated Press)|
Villanueva bucks up this year
He finally hits his stride - and stands to cash in
The seventh overall pick in the 2005 draft was traded after his rookie season. Critics said the ex-University of Connecticut star didn't play hard all the time. And he has often been the subject of trade rumors.
But now that he is living up to his potential on a nightly basis, the negative talk has stopped, and Charlie Villanueva has quietly put himself in position to get big bucks from the Milwaukee Bucks.
"I've been playing real good basketball," he said. "It's a new year. I'm just tapping into the potential of the player that I can be."
After averaging 13 points per game as a rookie with Toronto during the 2005-06 season, Villanueva regressed by averaging 11.8 and 11.7 in the next two seasons, with the Bucks. But this season, the versatile 6-foot-11-inch, 240-pounder is having a career year in several categories.
After Friday night's loss to New Orleans, Villanueva is averaging career highs of 16.5 points, 6.9 rebounds, and 1.9 assists, with a career-high 37.4 shooting percentage from 3-point range and 84.4 free throw percentage.
With injuries to starters Michael Redd and Andrew Bogut, the play of Villanueva has been a major factor in keeping Milwaukee in the race for the eighth and final Eastern Conference spot.
"Charlie has always had the ability to score in this league and has continued to do so this season," Bucks first-year general manager John Hammond said. "He has made progress as a more consistent rebounder and defender.
"We could not be more proud of him for the effort he has put forth under difficult circumstances due to injuries involving both Michael Redd and Andrew Bogut."
Villanueva credits his improved play to the addition of intense first-year coach Scott Skiles and consistent playing time that should get him considered for the Most Improved Player award.
"For the past two months, I've been playing the best basketball of my whole career," Villanueva said. "The thing with me was getting consistent minutes. And now I've been getting consistent minutes and I'm showing what I can do."
Villanueva has been the subject of trade rumors every season since entering the NBA. But this time, the new Bucks brass knew better than to listen to the overtures for a young player who is just becoming ripe. While the trade rumors used to bother him before, the 24-year-old takes them as a sign of respect now.
"Every year it's the same thing," Villanueva said. "My name comes up in trades. The trading deadline is behind us now and I'm just trying to focus on the remainder of the season. I must be doing something right.
"I don't even listen to [trade rumors]. My first year I did. I didn't know too much. I didn't know any better.
"But I understand that it is a business and I just avoid it."
The Bucks already have $64 million in committed money for next season, with Redd ($17.4 million), Bogut ($11 million), and guard Richard Jefferson ($14.2 million) leading the way. But Villanueva, due to be a restricted free agent, will have to get paid, too. The Bucks may have to do some shuffling, but expect them to figure out a way to keep Villanueva.
And if the business is fair, Villanueva would love to stay, too.
"I'm just going to play the rest of the season the best that I can," he said. "And when that time comes when I'm free, I'll just let it take care of itself and see what happens.
"I'd like to stay here. That would be my No. 1 option. I understand it's a business, but my No. 1 option is Milwaukee."
Said Hammond, "Our goal will be to re-sign him as he enters into this offseason as a restricted free agent."
Class of the college sceneAn Eastern Conference scout recently gave the Globe his top five NBA prospects to keep an eye on during NCAA Tournament time:
1. Blake Griffin, Oklahoma, sophomore, forward, 6-10, 251.
"He can affect a game from two dominating standpoints in rebounding and scoring. He's a poor man's Karl Malone."
2. Hasheem Thabeet, Connecticut, junior, center, 7-3, 265.
"He has a pure ability to block shots. He could get better skill-wise, but that's not going to impact him because he's so good at altering and blocking shots. He's a stud on the defensive end like Dikembe Mutombo."
3. James Harden, Arizona State, sophomore, guard, 6-5, 220.
"Tremendously gifted scorer. He's a combination of Michael Redd and Paul Pierce, but he's not as good as either of them. But he can score with little effort."
4. Jeff Teague, Wake Forest, sophomore, guard, 6-2, 180.
"He's the surprise. He wasn't a top-five or lottery guy entering the season. But he played into it with his ability to get double-doubles and by dominating games."
5. Jordan Hill, Arizona, junior, forward, 6-10, 235.
"He once had like 10 or 11 straight double-doubles. He's more of a skilled than power big. He will be a solid big in the NBA, but he needs to get stronger."
Honorable mention: Georgetown freshman forward Greg Monroe, Duke junior guard Gerald Henderson, Wake Forest freshman forward Al-Farouq Aminu.
Marc J. Spears can be reached at email@example.com